Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.19.18Sadie McCleary: On Using and Improving Knowledge Organizers at Uncommon Collegiate College HS

Reference sheets have been a consistent staple of Chemistry class for time immemorial – whether they are the Periodic Table or a sheet of equations, students always have something on their desks to reference and use during class.

As part of the TLAC Fellowship, my Uncommon Collegiate College High School colleague Denarius Frazier and I had the opportunity to learn about Knowledge Organizers.  I was excited to experiment with them because they fit into and build upon a system (reference sheets) I’ve already built in my classroom but could allow me to focus on knowledge-building, an aspect of learning that has been traditionally overlooked a bit.  Both Denarius and I are instructional coaches and teachers at our school, and we have experienced the challenge of building knowledge in our own classrooms as well as witnessing it in our teachers’ classrooms.

In science, for example, students have to learn extensive technical vocabulary (memorizing and using biology terms fluently is sometimes compared to a student’s experience with a foreign language) and then apply it correctly in context.  As evidenced on assessments, writing samples and discussions, our students have strong reasoning skills, but they struggle to explain scientific concepts precisely-often because they lack full proficiency with and instant recall of technical vocabulary.

Imagine describing the impact of decreased glucose availability on cellular respiration while searching for the words ‘mitochondria,’ ‘adenosine triphosphate,’ and ‘reaction.’  Imagine trying to compare the bond strength of two ionic compounds without mastery of the terms ‘proportionality (inverse and direct)’, ‘anion,’ ‘electrostatic force,’ or Coulomb’s Law’- not to mention ionic and compound.  Explanations without precise and technical vocabulary are often insufficient.

This lack of content recall hurts our students’ in every subject so with our school’s administration, Denarius and I rolled out Knowledge Organizers to our teachers during professional development.  Now every teacher creates a Knowledge Organizer at the beginning of a unit and uses it throughout to build knowledge and drive it into long term memory.

Results have been mixed- nothing is simple with new initiatives in school.  At the outset we did vocabulary and content recall at the beginning of class.  Over time we began asking students to recall in some additional ways during classes (partner quizzing using the KOs, oral drill, vocabulary quiz, recall quiz, or mad minute). We tried to require them to use the content from the current Knowledge Organizer and to recall content from previous units.

One of our history teachers designed a lesson that taught students how to use the Knowledge Organizers to study (in school and at home) to make them more effective: (fold the side of the sheet to cover vocabulary and quiz themselves, try to re-write open responses from old HW assignments using these terms, etc.). I thought that was brilliant.

Next we started to print each discipline’s KOs on specific  and different colored paper, and we gave each student a knowledge organizer organizer—‘a Flexi’–with tabs labeled by subject.  At parent-teacher conference nights, we each put out a stack of our subject’s most recent Kos so parents could have them, and advisors began referencing the Organizers when meeting with families about ways for parents to support their students at home.  It is by far my favorite strategy to discuss with parents – the content-filled sheet of paper offers a tangible and easy way for them to use to support their children.  One parent told me she had been calling out Chemistry vocabulary to her student on the way from the car to the school building, and another mentioned he loved to use them while he and his child prepared dinner.

As a result of all of these developments, I started to wonder if I could use KOs to be more of a one-stop-shop of sorts with the most important key vocabulary, equations, diagrams, but also with student’s own versions of key conceptual understandings from a unit on the back. This would allow me to let students track the conceptual understandings they “discover” during inquiry lessons.

Students frequently struggle to connect ideas and use strong scientific reasoning in order to make an argument.  For example, when discussing gases, they must explain how, while one variable is held constant, another variable impacts the third.  If the volume of the container is held constant while the temperature of the sample is increased, the internal pressure of the sample will increase.  Students have to support this claim with molecular reasoning – what is occurring on a molecular level within the gaseous sample to cause the internal pressure to increase when temperature is increased?  That’s hard.

At the beginning of the year, when students collectively reached a key understanding at the end of an inquiry lesson, we would record them on the back of our Knowledge Organizers as a group (I would call on students to build on the explanation, but we would all record the exact same key understanding on our KOs).  Here is an example of what that looked like from my annotated version of the Gases KO.

These were useful.  Students had all the material they needed in one spot.  In a recent review lesson, one of my 10th graders raised her hand and articulated a beautiful explanation of the relationship between temperature and volume at constant pressure.  Her peers snapped in appreciation of her response, and I walked over to praise her.  She had her bright green Knowledge Organizer on gases from early October open on her desk. She’d been referencing the key understandings on the back.  I thought I might die from excitement.

But I also started to notice several challenges:

  • Student responses on Do Nows, homework, or Mastery Assessments were overly similar to the conceptual understanding we wrote. I was unable to distinguish whether students truly knew the concept or were just memorizing how we wrote it in class (although this makes me wonder what ‘knowing’ truly is).
  • I gave two study surveys after Mastery Assessments, and students self-reported using the Knowledge Organizer for average of less than 5 minutes in preparation. I imagine this is the product of several things – students struggle with studying or are unsure of how to study, some students were studying other materials that were more useful, or students were not studying materials generally.


I decided to pull a small group of students to ask how to improve the KOs – I thought the conceptual understanding portion of the sheet was particularly useful and was surprised to see that so few students were referencing it.  To my surprise, students reported the conceptual understanding section as the least useful portion, which I must say hurt my feelings a bit.

I explored this a bit further with them, and it became clear that the conceptual understandings were too ‘clunky’ – because they were written as paragraphs, they were cumbersome and hard to study and encode in long term memory—that after all is the purpose of a Knowledge Organizer.  Several students reported enjoying the vocabulary section most and using it with their parents or siblings to conduct quick recall drills.

After further advice from students, we decided to experiment with how we wrote key understandings.  Instead of writing them immediately onto the back of the Knowledge Organizer, we started writing them into the handout for the day.  Part of students’ homework was to transfer the key understanding over to their KO in any way they preferred – students could paraphrase, use diagrams to represent the concept, develop a flow chart, or just copy the entire key understanding directly over.  Any of these would suffice.  Here are three of my favorites from the gas laws unit:

Sample 1: Jeffrey – Jeffrey’s diagram was beautifully simple and accurately depicts an increase in volume.  His brief flow chart supports this by explaining how the distance of particles from walls leads to fewer collisions and lowered pressure as a result.  Imagine studying this instead of trying to digest a five-line explanation.

Sample 2: Kiyya – Kiyyas’s flow chart is almost dizzying, but she used it frequently in class and found it useful for herself.  She wrote her flowchart for two scenarios – if volume is increased or if it is decreased, which is a useful way to study (reverse the relationship).  Second, you can see her revisions in the top right corner.  She had an explanation of collisions and force that was incomplete, and when she saw a different explanation in class from a peer, she revised her flow chart.

Sample 3: Queen: – This is an excellent example of how to transfer a key understanding if you’re unsure of a different representation/appropriate paraphrasing of the idea.  The text is still less overwhelming for her to use compared to my original key understanding, and she has substituted a few symbols or abbreviations to shorten the explanation.

Though it is hard to attribute increased progress  to any one variable in my classroom, my students , have performed much stronger on assessments- especially those involving Open-Ended Responses-the part that requires extensive argumentation/reasoning.  Knowledge builds higher order thinking.

I am also excited to keep improving our use of Knowledge Organizers across the school and help build our students’ content knowledge in each discipline – this will absolutely help move the needle on their achievement!




One Response to “Sadie McCleary: On Using and Improving Knowledge Organizers at Uncommon Collegiate College HS”

  1. June 4, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    I saw a similar change in physics class this year. After seeing that discussions of key misconceptions and taking notes were not leading to understanding, the students would answer one or two questions exploring a misconception, hand it in as an exit ticket, and then I would give feedback to clarify understandings. When they received the exit ticket back, they revised their explanations, checked those, and copied the crystallized understanding into their notes. That addition of writing about these vocabulary greatly improved their understanding by the time the test came.

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